Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Each Cincinnati Bengals Rookie
It's that time of year again, Cincinnati fans.
Training camp is upon us in the coming weeks, and expectations are rampant once more after a relatively young roster with ample experience suits up to begin the quest for a fourth straight trip to the postseason.
Directly underneath the spotlight, as is the case with all franchises, will be the 2014 rookie class, this one hand-picked by coach Marvin Lewis and his staff—a hodgepodge of names most fans have yet to see take the field.
Add in a dash of undrafted free agents, and the hype around the new faces is plentiful. That said, there are only so many roster spots to go around and each rookie will have to scratch and claw to stick, let alone see the field during the regular season.
Before camp gets underway, let's take a look at what to expect from each Bengals rookie.
Darqueze Dennard, CB
"I'm a realist. We've got a lot of great players out there. Looking especially in the secondary, there's a lot of players that have done a lot of good things in their careers. I'm just here to learn from them and do the best I can to help the team."
That's Michigan State product Darqueze Dennard, the Cincinnati Bengals' first-round pick this year, on his fit with the team, per ESPN's Coley Harvey.
Go ahead and rinse and repeat for each rookie.
The reality is, Dennard has the raw ability to start right away. He'll surely show this ability in camp, but the team has no need to throw him to the wolves with names like Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick on the depth chart.
As a rookie, he will see more playing time than Kirkpatrick did in his second year (his first was derailed by injuries). In training camp, however, expect various reports to surface about Dennard's skill and struggles, as he'll be given plenty of opportunities to show what he's got. Like any rookie defensive back, camp will be both kind and cruel for him leading up to the season.
Jeremy Hill, RB
There was quite a mixed reaction from fans when the Cincinnati Bengals selected LSU's Jeremy Hill in the second round, but he'll immediately win those naysayers over with his performance in camp.
While it's highly unlikely the Bengals will part with veteran leader BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Hill has the sheer talent to steal short-yardage snaps and act as the complement to Giovani Bernard.
There is a reason the coaching staff is "toying with" alignments that place Bernard and Hill on the field together, per Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' website.
At camp, expect to see Hill soak up plenty of touches to keep all legs in the stable fresh. Should he stay healthy, his abilities will have no issue seeing him past The Law Firm on the depth chart, especially if Hill can show well in preseason contests.
Will Clarke, DE
For those who get to travel to the Cincinnati Bengals camp this offseason, it will be hard to tell former defensive end Michael Johnson is even gone.
Credit that to West Virginia product Will Clarke, who seems an odd clone of the former star defensive end. Funnily enough, Clarke is every bit as raw as Johnson was coming out of Georgia Tech.
Don't expect much from Clarke. That's not meant to come off as negative, but like Johnson, he has a long way to go in most areas before he earns a cemented spot in the rotation and even longer before he can perhaps take a starting role.
As far as next season goes, he might just slip into a rotation at either of the defensive end spots, but it's going to be a tough task to accomplish thanks to players such as Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers.
An occasional kick inside to defensive tackle in nickel may be the most action Clarke sees as a rookie.
Russell Bodine, C
When Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander makes a move, fans would be wise to pay close attention.
Alexander and the staff elected to trade up and nab Russell Bodine in the fourth round of this year's draft, which should have been a sign that the team views him as the starting center in front of Andy Dalton.
Bodine has already received some first-team reps this offseason thanks to an injury suffered by recently re-signed guard Mike Pollak.
Expect nothing less than the rookie stealing the starting gig in camp as he continues to develop. It's clearly what the staff wants, especially so that Pollak can slide over and push the sometimes ineffective Clint Boling at left guard.
The raw ability is there; it's just a matter of Bodine learning at a rapid pace. Alexander believes in him, so fans should, too.
AJ McCarron, QB
That small segment of the Cincinnati Bengals fanbase that wants to see rookie AJ McCarron supplant three-year starter Andy Dalton may want to just skip this one.
To be quite blunt about the situation, McCarron does not have a shot at the starting gig. Dalton is the front office's guy, and there is little the rookie can (or will) do in training camp to steal the job.
What fans and the coaching staff can expect to see is an undeterred work ethic from the Alabama product, as ESPN's Coley Harvey notes of McCarron's OTA work:
Granted, we only really got a chance to see the rookie quarterback compete for one of the four weeks of organized team activities and minicamp, but still, he was as impressive as he could be in shorts and a helmet...One thing that also impressed me was the amount of work he regularly put in after practice. After Monday's OTA, he walked back in the locker room a good 30 minutes after practice concluded.
That work ethic will make him a viable starter should an injury befall both Dalton and veteran Jason Campbell. For now, the rookie is there to learn and soak up snaps.
Marquis Flowers, LB
With the No. 212 overall pick in the 2014 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals got their Taylor Mays insurance with one Marquis Flowers, who most recently notched 86 tackles and earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors.
Considering Mays is recovering from a torn labrum in two places and was given a one-year deal this offseason, Flowers has a very good chance of stealing the roster spot from the USC product.
Like Mays, Flowers is a bit too small to play linebacker (6'2" and 231 pounds), but he's athletic enough to occupy a hybrid linebacker-safety role depending on the situation.
Given his supreme athleticism, expect the rookie to put on a show while on special teams duty. He is going to get a legit shot to steal Mays' job this preseason.
James Wright, WR
James Wright is flying under the radar with the Cincinnati Bengals at this point in time, but training camp may change all of that in a hurry.
Remember, he was stuck behind two talented receivers at LSU on a run-first offense, so it's not like he received a ton of chances to flaunt his wares in that aspect of the game. He did, however, show off a ton of ability as a returner and has enough athleticism to properly cover kicks.
In other words, expect him to do just that in training camp and seriously push Brandon Tate for his job. Conventional wisdom says the Bengals would like to get more of Adam Jones and Giovani Bernard on returns along with Tate, but Wright has what it takes to throw his name in there, too.
Lavelle Westbrooks, CB
The last of Cincinnati's picks in the 2014 draft (No. 252), Lavelle Westbrooks has a tall mountain to climb in order to make the final roster.
This is especially the case when one takes into account the fact he played collegiate ball at the small Georgia Southern, where he spent three years as a cornerback and one as a safety.
That sounds like a typical Bengals defensive back given his versatility, but Westbrooks will have to shine on special teams to make the final cut. Should he perform well enough, he might just land on the practice squad as a developmental piece.
James Davidson, DE
At 6'3" and 242 pounds out of UTEP, defensive end James Davidson will need to add bulk if he wants to make the final roster.
The conversion to linebacker will not be an easy one, but he did finish his career at UTEP with 8.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. He has a nose for the football that will be on display during training camp.
Best case? Davidson shows good awareness and gives the staff confidence in his ability to play standing up. Even then, only a spot on the practice squad is up for grabs.
Curtis Feigt, OT
At 6'7" and 310 pounds, there is a lot to like about West Virginia's Curtis Feigt as he prepares to do battle at one of the critical positions on the 2014 Cincinnati Bengals roster.
Given Andrew Whitworth's battles with injuries last year and the loss of Anthony Collins, there is certainly room for playing time this preseason.
Feigt projects as more of a right tackle, and he has huge obstacles to overcome at that slot with names like Andre Smith, Tanner Hawkinson and Will Svitek in front of him. The practice squad is the best-case scenario for him at this point, although he'll see action late in preseason games.
Dan France, G
Versatility is the name of the game for the Cincinnati Bengals, and they got a load of it with undrafted rookie Dan France.
He started 37 times along the offensive line while at Michigan State, with 24 of those coming at left tackle.
Given his experience at all spots, he has a good chance to make the roster, especially if injuries strike along the unit as they have in past years. Watch the coaching staff to test him at multiple spots to see if he can stick, including maybe even a bit of defensive tackle—a spot he played as a freshman.
Ryan Hewitt, TE-FB
Say hello to the rookie who can rather easily steal Orson Charles' job at the H-back slot.
The Cincinnati Bengals do not just bring on guys at a whim to fill the 90-man roster. Stanford's Ryan Hewitt has experience at both fullback and tight end thanks to injuries that hit the Cardinal roster.
Believe it or not, he can be one of the better lead blockers in camp this preseason, and his soft hands make him a good safety valve for Andy Dalton and Co. Expect him to shine and at the very least make the practice squad.
Trey Hopkins, G
A note from Geoff Hobson of the Cincinnati Bengals' official website says all fans need to know about former Texas standout Trey Hopkins:
Trey Hopkins of Texas, one of the four or so undrafted rookies that have a shot at making the roster, took his turn at starting left guard with the No.1 s Thursday and continued to flash a nice brand of athleticism. With Clint Boling rehabbing an ACL, Tanner Hawkinson and Andrew Whitworth have worked in there at left guard at times and the 6-3, 307-pound Hopkins, believed to have signed the Bengals’ biggest rookie free-agent deal, got his shot next to Whitworth.
Nobody would suggest Hopkins will win a starting gig, but remember what was said about Paul Alexander earlier? If he and the staff feel strongly enough to make Hopkins one of the higher-paid rookies that went undrafted, it says plenty about his upside.
A stellar camp and a spot on the final roster as depth seem likely, provided Hopkins can keep his current form.
Isaiah Lewis, S
What do Tom Nelson, Tony Dye and Jeromy Miles have in common?
They are all undrafted safeties in recent years who have gone on to make the final roster with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Feel safe in adding Isaiah Lewis to that list, as long as he stays healthy.
His final year at Michigan State was ruined by knee surgery that derailed the entire season, which in part hurt his draft stock. By most accounts, he has looked strong so far this preseason.
Should that continue, Lewis will enter a battle the unproven Shawn Williams and journeyman Danieal Manning for a final roster spot. The rookie will look strong, although a trip to the practice squad may be in order.
Colin Lockett, WR
The owner of 1,999 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns with San Diego State, Colin Lockett was destined to latch on with a pro team as a slot receiver and kick returner.
He did just that with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that can never have too many sure-handed receivers to complement the offense.
At 6'0" and 188 pounds, he has the hands and measurables to fight with players such as Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen and Cobi Hamilton for a roster spot, although there are simply not enough to go around.
Except a few highlight-worthy catches during camp but little in the way of headway for a final spot.
Alex Neutz, WR
There is a lot to like about Alex Neutz as he enters Cincinnati Bengals training camp this summer.
The owner of more than 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in each of his last two seasons at Buffalo, Neutz has great size at 6'3" and 206 pounds, which allows him to take advantage of smaller defensive backs in space. His blazing speed helps, too.
He is going to be a nice surprise in camp. He'll have a few big plays and compete directly with Cobi Hamilton and Ryan Whalen; however, like many of the team's undrafted players this year, his best bet is a spot on the practice squad with a chance at a later promotion.
Nikita Whitlock, FB
"Hopefully I can come in and reverse his role," Whitlock said, per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. "I know he must have a lot on his plate. Maybe I can play fullback and get a few snaps on the defensive line...I think I can play anywhere on the line."
That's undrafted fullback Nikita Whitlock out of Wake Forest talking about how he looks to Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko for inspiration, although for now he'll be asked to take a larger role on the offensive side of the ball.
Whitlock has never played fullback, and at 5'10" and 248 pounds, he's not likely to be playing tackle on the defensive side anytime soon.
The good news? He would be the only pure fullback on the roster, should he succeed. Watch him closely in camp, as a strong move to the position may very well result in a roster spot. Anything less than 100 percent effort will be a disappointment this summer.
James Wilder Jr., HB
The most recognizable name on the list of undrafted players joining the Cincinnati Bengals, James Wilder Jr. has as difficult a task as any hopeful this summer.
With names like Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman in front of him, the rotational back from Florida State who has a game similar to Jeremy Hill's will need a perfect summer and injuries in front of him to make the final roster.
That said, Wilder Jr. is a lock for the practice squad, so much so that he's also a favorite to be stolen by another franchise once he lands there. The 22-year-old bruiser is surely going to give the coaching staff numerous headaches when it comes time to reduce the roster to just 53 men.
Victor Hampton, CB
Even after the Cincinnati Bengals revealed their undrafted class, the front office was hard at work making additional moves to have the most competitive roster possible in time for camp.
How this turns out is anyone's guess. Hampton was pegged as a mid-round pick, but run-ins with the law before the draft put him well out of the proceedings and into the realm of the undrafted.
There is no question he is talented, so quality play from him in practice and the preseason is likely. Furthering his chances at playing time is the trend in recent years of the secondary being rather injury-prone, so there is an outside shot he plays his way into a roster spot if he can pair playing time with his former mid-round grades.
Note: Undrafted rookies via ESPN.com's Coley Harvey.